Learning Through All Senses

and Through Meaningful Social Interaction

A resource paper compiled by Kaizen Program staff

MS Word .doc version (47 kb)

1. Howard Gardner, Professor of education, Harvard University, a developmental psychologist and respected researcher, in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, (New York: Basic Books) discusses the overwhelming evidence for the importance of all the senses in all learning, including language learning, for all learners, of whatever age. We all learn through all of our senses, even though we often prefer some senses over others in specific situations. After thoroughly and critically analyzing the results of the investigations into human intelligence of the past sixty years, and taking multisensory learning and competencies into account, Gardner has concluded that there is no basis for accepting any unified unchangeable measure of human intelligence. Even those tests which claim to measure such an entity produce results which can be analyzed to demonstrate statistically that there are multiple interrelated intelligences that should be recognized, valued, and cultivated, including: linguistic, logical, mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal (the ability to understand others), and intrapersonal (the ability to understand oneself), naturalist (the ability to recognize fine distinctions and patterns in the natural world), and possibly existential—with more to be identified.

2. Researcher and educator, Jerry Harste, in “Toward a Theory of Literacy Instruction” (mimeographed) Discussion paper presented at the Literacy Forum, Indiana University, November 1991) discusses the relevance of multiple intelligences or abilities to literacy learning by relating the communicative functions of art, math, music, and language. Each has its own kind of syntax, or ways of organizing information and showing relationships, as well as its own sign systems. And these different ways of knowing and communicating can frequently be fruitfully interrelated, even when they are accessed by different senses. Harste then goes on to note the massive amount of evidence indicating that exposing students of all ages to a variety of sign systems expands their communication potential and actual capacities. Moreover, he notes that when all the senses are engaged in the learning process, students are able not only to learn in the ways and through the modes of perception they are most accustomed to use, but also to develop a full, flexible and varied repertoire of learning styles. With a multisensory approach, which enables and stimulates more than one way of communicating, all the students in a class are more likely to be reached in some way, and also more likely to have qualitatively richer learning experiences. Harste therefore urges that teachers recognize the great value of all the senses and all ways that learners communicate, in order to expand communication potential, and to avoid systematically shutting off certain forms of expression through overemphasizing some, and neglecting others.

Jerry Harste’s findings and discussions of the nature of language learning can be further explored in Harste, J., Woodward, V., Burke, C, Language Stories and Literacy Lessons (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1984), Harste, J. and L. Mikulecky. 1984. “The Context of Literacy in Our Society” in Becoming Readers In A Complex Society: NSSE Yearbook, 1984, edited by Purves, A. and Niles, O. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984), Harste, J., Watson, D., & Burke, C, Inquiring Voices, (Toronto: Scholastic, 1991), among many other works.

3. Researcher and educator specializing in adult ESL education, Grace Massey Holt, in “Instruction for Beginning Literacy Learners,” (Outreach, 5 (1719), Sacramento: Bilingual Education Office, California Department of Education, 1994) also reports that she and others have found that giving adult E.S.L. students opportunities to utilize all their senses, by using real life objects and experiences, as well as opportunities for artistic and other ways of communicating, enhances their learning by providing a meaningful context for authentic literacy development.

4. During the last thirty years, many researchers and experienced educators have come to a greater appreciation of the role of the shared language of social interactions in the development of thought and linguistic fluency. For example, L. S. Vygotsky, in his Mind In Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) developed a schema for representing, analyzing and understanding social interaction in the language learning process. He explored the function of language both as a tool for thought and the key to all intellectual and social development. Vygotsky found that speech, even speech that seems to lack direction, is influenced by the presence of other people. He noted the existence of two levels of mental development: what children or adults can do alone, and what they can do when working with others. He mapped continuous overlapping and interaction between the two levels, as learners move from problem solving with guidance from those who are already expert in what is being learned, or in collaboration with more capable learning peers, to more independent problem solving activities, and assistance to other less proficient learners. New learners first develop concepts by talking to teachers or more capable peers as they solve a problem. Later, they can solve a similar problem by themselves because they were able to internalize the concepts needed for the solution. What they could at first only do with the help of others, they can now do alone, but they needed that earlier social interaction to build the inner resources.

Vygotsky also found that even proficient adults often talk to themselves when they are by themselves and are faced with a real dilemma and need to use their social resources.

5. Many ESL researchers and educators have also come to recognize that social interaction is critical for effective language learning. For example, Yvonne S. Freeman and David E. Freeman are both professors in the Division of Language, Literacy and Culture of the Graduate School at Fresno Pacific College, where they teach and do research with teachers of second language students. Yvonne is Director of Bilingual Education and David is Director of Language Development. In their thoroughly documented book, Whole Language for Second Language Learners, and in their 1989 article, “Changing Contexts In Secondary Classes By Altering Teacher Assumptions”, (The CATESOL Journal, 2) they discuss the growing body of evidence for the understanding that language meaning is constructed in transactions between individuals and their learning environments, including both physical aspects and other people, and that language learning occurs best when students engage in social interaction.

The Freemans note that in the past many teachers of English as a second language wrongly assumed that new English learners didn’t benefit from practicing with each other because they might teach each other poor habits in speaking English. To avoid this supposed problem, ESL classes were traditionally structured in ways that isolated students from each other. Students were isolated when they sat in straight rows and focused on answering pre-determined questions the teacher asked. They continue to be isolated when they sit in front of computer screens and answer questions on the new electronic worksheets computers can generate endlessly.

But the Freemans and a growing number of other researchers have found that activities in which new English learners practice English together and with proficient English speakers who are trying to communicate rather than monitor and correct, and activities in which real questions are asked and answered, rather than fostering poor habits in speaking English, facilitate language learning. Learning happens more readily during social interaction, because interacting with others gives new language learners more opportunities to use language than working on language lessons alone ever can. It also motivates learners to independently initiate using language in meaningful ways, and improves the quality of the language actually used, because students truly want to communicate.

6. Other second language researchers and educators have also found that social interaction is critical for effective language learning. Noteworthy among them is researcher and teacher educator, Carole Edelsky, who has written and continues to write articles and books which include discussion of the social aspects of literacy learning. In Writing In The Bilingual Classroom: Habia una vez (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1989) and in With Literacy And Justice For All: Rethinking the Social in Language and Education, (UK Taylor & Francis Ltd, 1996) Edelsky discusses her findings that second language oral competencies and literacy are both learned through meaningful use within contexts where the learners are respected for what they already know and for their potential to learn.

7. Another highly respected researcher and educator Kenneth S. Goodman and his colleagues have clarified the importance of social context in learning by exploring how individual inventions are influenced by social conventions. They found that learners construct their individual understandings of the world, and then they test their conceptualizations against the understandings of others around them. Language plays the key role in this process because it is the prime social medium for the sharing of thoughts. This sharing process creates a social mind from individual minds, and thus greatly magnifies the learning ability of any one person. Ken Goodman’s findings and ideas can be found in Kenneth S. Goodman et al, Language And Thinking In School 3rd edition, (New York: Richard C. Owen Publishers, Inc., 1987), “Unity In Reading,” in O. Niles & A. Purves (Eds.), Becoming Readers In A Complex Society (83rd Yearbook Of The National Society for the Study of Education, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), “Language And Learning: Toward A Social-Personal View.” Paper presented at Brisbane Conference on Language and Learning, 1988. “Revaluing Readers And Reading” In S. Stires (Ed.), With Promise: Redefining Reading And Writing For “Special” Students, (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991), and Goodman, K., Y. M. Goodman, and B. Flores, Reading In The Bilingual Classroom: Literacy And Biliteracy, (Rosslyn, VA: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, 1979), among many other works.

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